BRC After Action Report .pdf

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Boulder Flood Relief
The Occupation of Love and Shovels In A Time of Crisis:
An Account of Grass-Roots Disaster Relief During The
Colorado Flood Of September, 2013
boulderrelief.org
boulderfloodrelief.org
boulderfloodrelief@gmail.com

Tiernan Doyle

Executive Director

Boulder Flood Relief
2013 Operations Report
OR
The Occupation of Love and Shovels In A Time of Crisis:
An Account of Grass-Roots Disaster Relief During The
Colorado Flood Of September, 2013
By Tiernan Doyle
Executive Director
Boulder Flood Relief

Executive Summary
Community Response
Boulder Flood Relief
Lessons Learned

Context

Rainfall
Drainages Affected
Landslides
Communities Affected

Community Response
Previous Floods
Emergency Response
Volunteer Opportunities

Boulder Flood Relief
Formation
Occupy Sandy
University of Colorado
Occupy Boulder
Organization
Tech Tools
Boulder Startups
Boots on the Ground
BFR Volunteer Dispatch
Legal Framework
Financial Structure
Community Assistance

Key Lessons Learned

Lead from Below
Limitations are an Opportunity
Connect Neighbors with Neighbors
Collect and Catalyze your Data
Communicate. and Communicate More.
Partner Up
Think about the Money
Innovate and Adapt

References

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This report is dedicated to all the compassionate volunteers and brave
residents of the Front Range of Colorado: You make us see hope every day;
a hope built through shovels full of mud, friendships found, and despair
transformed into courage.

Whether you extended your hands to accept or provide assistance, we have
all been made richer by that exchange and by the tremendous opportunity to
protect, strengthen, and unite our community.

Thank you for making this home.

Executive Summary
Context
From September 10th-15th, an unusually
sustained storm settled over Colorado’s
Northern Front Range bringing heavy
rainfall to the area and creating widespread
flooding. The event was unprecedented in
the number of drainages affected and the
duration of the rainfall and was declared
a federal disaster on September 14th.
The storm created new single day rainfall
records, set new records for landslides in
the interior United States, caused $2 billion
worth of damage, necessitated the largest
air evacuation since Hurricane Katrina, and
resulted in the deaths of eight people.

community members experienced little
to no impact, while their neighbors found
their homes and lives changed forever.
This uneven distribution of affect made
it difficult for people to sit by and watch
their community suffer, but there was scant
situational information available and no
readily apparent opportunities to volunteer.
The Front Range area has a very active
volunteer community, and it was difficult, if
not impossible, for many to remain out of
the action.

Community Response

Recognizing the opportunity for grassroots
relief efforts to make an impact in response
to the floods, CU students and members
of Occupy Boulder began to organize
to provide volunteer opportunities and
homeowner assistance. Very few groups
were recruiting, let alone accepting,

The rainfall pattern created a highly diverse
set of effects for those on the ground,
resulting in great variety in relief and
recovery needs and straining emergency
response resources to their limits. Some

4

Boulder Flood Relief

volunteers, so Boulder Flood Relief’s
responsiveness and immediacy of action
quickly gained traction among both
volunteers and residents in need. Word of
mouth and social media networks provided
effective methods for brokering information,
assisting residents, and gaining volunteers
from the community.
Boulder Flood Relief operations emerged
from and remained grounded in trust,
collaboration, and strengthening neighborto-neighbor connections. The outpouring
of support from the community was
tremendous, and over 2,000 volunteers
signed up within a few weeks. Working with
massive amounts of incoming data, BFR
maintained an engaged and flexible internal
organization in order to adapt to the
changing needs of residents, volunteers, and
office workers. Building on the fundamental
impetus to organize, BFR carefully acquired

legal and financial structures that were
aimed at strengthening community trust,
but also ended up extending the life of the
organization. Having experienced many
difficulties interacting with preexisting
emergency response structures, BFR
transitioned from volunteer management
into projects focused on building social
capital, incorporating community into
disaster response, and preventing gaps in
services during future disasters.
Lessons Learned
It would be impossible to distill out
everything that BFR learned along the way
as residents, partners and volunteers all
provided incredible feedback and support
for future work. But key points derived
from these conversations include emphasis
on communication, partnerships, capacity
building, and data driven decisions.

5

Front Range

Low
Pressure

Colorado

Wet Air

Dry Air
Context
From September 10th-15th 2013, an
atmospheric low pressure system settled
over Colorado’s Northern Front Range,
spiking moisture levels in the air and
bringing unusually heavy rainfall to the
area. September is historically one of
the drier months of the year in Colorado
with an average precipitation of just over
1” (US Climate Data 2015), but an influx
of monsoonal moisture from the Gulf of
Mexico intersected with a low-pressure
front to create a storm front that lodged in
place over Colorado’s northern Front Range
(Lukas 2013). This resulted in sustained
rainfall for days, creating a peak downpour
of 9.08” on September 12th that set a new
high for daily total rainfall along the Front
Range (NOAA 2013). Amounts up to 20” over
five days were reported in areas in Boulder
County (Lukas 2013).

6

Overwhelmed by the heavy amounts of
rain, drainages throughout the Front Range
filled rapidly; discharging sediment, water,
mud and carrying large debris loads into
homes and open space downstream. Termed
a 1,000-year rain by NOAA, the event was
declared a federal disaster on September
14th. The National Guard was called in to
evacuate homeowners and the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
and local government rallied to provide
emergency services. When the storm
cleared, there were eight fatalities reported,
over 1500 homes destroyed, and over $2
billion dollars in damage (FEMA 2013).
Rainfall
The rainfall duration and patterning was
difficult to predict, and the subsequent

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Wettest

24

1995

18

Flood
2013

12
6

Dryest
1910

0
Jan

Mar

May

Jul

Sep

Nov

Rainfall Totals for 2013 Flood
Source: Applied Climate Information
Systems Boulder Station

flooding events were unforeseen. Sustained
rain over five days is not a common event
along the Front Range, as precipitation
usually comes and goes with short duration
(Hoerling et al. 2014). Meteorologists
tracking the systems in play became
concerned several days before rain began,
but expected the duration to be at most two
days (Rydell 2014). Heavy rainfall over 48
hours is in itself cause for concern as the
arid soils of Colorado have limited capacity
for absorbing water. The Boulder County
Hazard Mitigation Plan plots the initial
warning for flooding in the city of Boulder at
a rate of 1.5” of rain per hour. Areas affected
by the Four Mile Fire just adjacent to the
city triggered warnings for landslides and
minor flooding when rain rates reached 1/4”
per hour (AMEC 2012).

In addition to the new record high for
over 9” of accumulation in one day, the
event set five daily rainfall records for
September (NOAA 2013). With these
numbers, the monthly total set an overall
record at 17.59” and a new water year high
at 32.37” (NOAA 2013). Quickly rising above
infiltration capability of the soils in the
mountains, the rains carved off massive
amounts of sediment and sloughed debris
into drainages as well as homes. As large
volumes of water were channeled into
streambeds and creeks, lateral flows broke
the banks, rerouted rivers and undercut
roads (Plumlee 2014).
Compounding the devastating
environmental and infrastructural impacts,
the effects of the rainfall wreaked havoc
with the financial stability and recovery of

7

8”
15”

12”

20”

12”

15”

10”

18”

20”
8”

10”

21”
10”

Rainfall Contours

homeowners. Insurance policies use highly
specific definitions of flood and mudflows
to determine payouts (FEMA 2014), and
many homeowners were not able to obtain
recompense from their insurance company
because their damage was caused by rain
rather than flood waters, or the sediment
coming off the mountains was designated
landslide rather than mudflow (Joycelyn
Fankhouser, personal communication,
December 10, 2014). As the amount of
rain and the diversity of its impacts were
impossible to predict, it has also made
the response and recovery a constantly
changing and adaptive process.

from higher elevations has carved out
channels over centuries of accumulation
(CDOT n.d.). These can gain water rapidly
during a rainstorm due to the stark
topography of the mountains, and the flash
flood risk is high along the entire Front
Range (AMEC 2012). Due to the extensive
nature of the rain event, all drainages
throughout the area experienced increased
flow rates, with water quickly accumulating
in the channels. During the peak of the
flood, the St. Vrain channel was filled with
depths of almost 9’, while water spilled out
of the channel to lateral extensions of 45’
(Plumlee 2014).

Drainages Affected

Larimer experienced similar effects, and
flows measured on the Cache La Poudre
River show that this was one of the largest
discharges in recorded history (Houck

The Front Range as a whole is crisscrossed
by small creeks and springs as snowmelt

8


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